Posted on January 22, 2012
So we finally managed to see War Horse and let me say at the outset that if you love horses, you might very well see past this film’s collosal shortcomings. It has other virtues. Shot on film, it is visually lush and intentionally evocative of 1940s and 50s moviemaking. There are a couple of genuine tear jerker moments. I knew going in that the film requires us to leave behind our modern skeptical, jaded sensibilities (as many Speilberg films require) and I have no problem with schmaltz (I’m the guy who watches Love Actually every Xmas, had a man crush on Hugh Grant, and defends Avatar — I can do schmatlz).
However, I left the theater scratching my head and asking “Why was this film made?” Its sentimentality is slathered on with far too heavy a hand, the John Williams score is painfully apparent, the characters are two-dimensional, the sets belabored (the family farmhouse looks like Hobbits should emerge from inside), and the plot utterably predictable. Either the acting was terrible or these are modern actors acting like actors of a bygone era and I just missed the exercise. It was, from my perspective, mostly cringe worthy. Somewhere in this very long 2 1/2 hour slog, I was secretly hoping that some of the main characters would perish and end the pain of seeing them on screen (not the horses, of course).
There are a handful of amazing shots — the calvary charge out of the hay field, the views over no-man’s land, the closing long shots. The scenes of the horseless riders leaping over the line of German machine gunners was original and moving. Speilberg is a master craftsman and his skill is very evident. The horses steal every scene and they exhibit considerably more acting skills than the human cast and by all accounts the handlers managed to get more engagement and presence from these horses than previous equine-centered films. The horse that mostly plays Joey (there was more than one horse actor for the role), the hero of the film, also played Seabiscuit, a far better film — this pony should get an Oscar.
It’s hard to argue against the core values of the film: unwavering loyalty, tenacity, courage. Those who argue that the film glosses over the horrors of the First World War might be a little unfair. Speilberg wasn’t making Saving Private Ryan here. It’s a horse and boy movie and the war is a backdrop, not the subject. I wanted to like this film and even as I write I realize I am trying to mine deeper for redeeeming qualities, but it’s just not a very good movie. It is one thing to evoke films for which we might feel nostalgia, but the goal should have been to doso in ways that work with a modern sensibility. It is the difference between building the 2012 Mini Cooper, with all of its stylish evocation of the 1960s origina but modern performancel, and making a Mini Cooper that is exactly like the original: cute, but too small, too underperforming, too unsafe. It would be curious, but ultimately not very appealing.
Such is War Horse.
People have been very much split over the play and now the film. Count me in the neigh camp